Monday, May 23, 2016

Design is Everything is Design

I have written many posts for this blog that I have never published. In some cases this has been because I felt that they were too rough and unfinished to provide any clarity whatsoever. In other cases they just felt too personal. This is a post that I wrote/created in late August 2015. For reasons that even I am not sure of I'm publishing it now   :-/   ... 

My fascination with design process runs deep. 

I recently received a rejection for a paper I have been working on for quite some time. I worked on it with a Professor here at IU for several months. But, quite honestly it is something I have been working on personally (and usually in the back ground of everything I do) for many years. The rejection didn't surprise me even though I feel like it is a good paper.

I see design process as a very close relative of evolutionary biology. 

We received some good feedback from the reviewers who thought the ideas the paper put forth were very interesting and worth pursuing. There were two reviewers and each of them wrote a full page of comments and concerns — this type/length of response indicates a sincere interest in the work. So, now we put it aside for a bit and move forward.

Ideas evolve.  

As I mentioned the topic of this paper has haunted me and my thoughts for many years. So, the chance it will ever go away are slim to none. I will return to "the paper" one day, probably very soon.

Humans are central to this process.

Last week I was in a meeting with three of my colleagues. We have these meetings once a week or so and they are our chance to hang out and discuss what we are working on and also to vent a little. It's our once a week catharsis. This week I had a chance to talk about this paper and it's rejection. It turned into an hour long discussion about it — very encouraging. I struggle to feel as though I fit with academics. They often ask me questions that are framed in such a way that I find it difficult to respond. 

Humans are both carriers and engineers of ideas.

I fear that I don't think like a researcher — at least not an "Informatics," "HCI," or academic researcher. When asked what my "findings" are or what my "contribution" is for this (or any) paper I honestly feel like I don't have any. Sure I wrote some stuff that came under those headings. 

We embed ideas in the things that we create and those things pass ideas on to other humans. 

But, the things I wrote feel to me like things that are just my own crazy ideas even though they are supported with interviews, participant-observation and other papers. Furthermore, these ideas seem to me quite obvious and they have been written about by others (albeit in different ways than my own).

Along the way those ideas mutate.

I look back on all of this now more convinced than ever that everything is in some way a design process. I designed a paper. Reviewers reject it and offer me feedback. I talk with my colleagues and they provide further feedback and a nice dose of encouragement. Soon I will return to the paper and redesign it and the process will begin again. In some ways this is what the paper was about.

This mutation can be a result of environmental factors and/or filters in our way of thinking... or... 

as humans/designers we can forcibly mutate an idea. 

This last statement, if it is true, is extremely powerful. 

If it's not true — then maybe we are just exactly like every other animal on the planet — (pre)programed by our experience, environment and genetics to do everything we do. 

If it's not true — then we have no agency and that would devastate me.



  1. Beautiful post, Gary. One caveat... When we have brilliant ideas that we are trying to publish, our "designs" often mutate to please others (reviewers/editors) and while they may still be good ideas (made stronger by feedback) they have morphed into something both more and less than "our" design. My 2 cents. But thanks for the thoughtful post!

    1. CWx2 — thank you for the comment. I agree. I would add that — it takes a lot of strength to apply feedback as YOU see fit and not just be a people pleaser.

  2. I think you're crossing over from design into philosophy. I believe we _are_ programmed by experience, environment, and genetics to do everything we do. We desire to do things because our ancestors had similar desires that increased the likelihood of survival for themselves and their offspring. Things feel good, in general, because they are good for our survival. So from a certain perspective we have no agency, because we can only want what our biology allows us to want. But we don't really need agency, we just need to _feel_ like we have agency. As with many things in design, the perception is _more_important_ than reality, and our response to that perception shapes the reality and ultimately becomes the reality.

    1. Hey, Carl -- I always enjoy your comments. I believe that design is largely philosophy so I feel comfortable with your first sentence. In fact I agree with much of what you are saying. Genetic and transgenerational epigenetic inheritance are powerful factors in everything we do and everything are. So... here's a little crazy for your day... I also believe that we are spirit as well as flesh. It's the real you, your very real spirit that allows you to forcibly mutate ideas in ways that you would otherwise not be able to. How's that for a philosophy of design? ;)